Nebraska volleyball players rise above fans who called kneeling UMD Terps ‘trash’ | COMMENTARY

Nebraska's Riley Zuhn (16) and Callie Schwarzenbach watch the action during the fourth set of a college volleyball match against the University of Maryland, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Francis Gardler/Lincoln Journal Star via AP)

Some days, it seems this nation’s ability to have a respectful conversation, particularly when it comes to race relations, is beyond repair. Yet there are, at least occasionally, moments when there is hope that decency will yet prevail and that most Americans aren’t screaming ugly epithets at one another from the sidelines.

Such a moment came last Friday from the unlikely venue of Lincoln, Nebraska.


The occasion was a match between the University of Maryland and the University of Nebraska in women’s volleyball. Nebraska is something of a powerhouse in the sport as the 11th ranked team in the nation. The Terps have a winning record, but they have fared less well against fellow Big Ten teams like Nebraska this season. The contest’s real action of note took place before the first ball was served, however. During the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a handful of Maryland players took a knee to show support for Black Lives Matter. Apparently, that didn’t sit well with some Cornhusker fans who screamed from the stands such remarks as “Stand up, you piece of trash,” as Maryland’s Rainelle Jones later told a reporter for The Diamondback, the school’s independent student newspaper.

Maryland went on to lose that match, but the players did not lose their dignity. Taking a knee during the national anthem is neither unpatriotic nor particularly uncommon. Five years ago, it might have seemed controversial when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did it (and soon found NFL teams uninterested in his services), but today it’s mainstream. The practice has even crossed the Atlantic Ocean and was performed at Europe’s soccer championship this summer. The National Football League promotes social justice messaging including Black Lives Matter on all sorts of platforms — as do the National Basketball Association and Women’s National Basketball Association.


And here’s the moment that really mattered. After the game, Nebraska players and coaches condemned the spectators’ behavior and immediately apologized to the Maryland players on the court. “I just don’t think that’s our fans’ place to say things during a match,” Nebraska Coach John Cook later explained to the Lincoln Journal Star. “It’s putting judgment on the other team, and this is a volleyball match. We’re not here to do that. So I’m a little disappointed that happened.” Even Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts eventually got into the act, and, while he did not support the action of the Maryland players, chided fans in a Monday news conference suggesting they should be “respectful to the teams that come in from other places.”

Now, we’re not going to suggest that Governor Ricketts is the most enlightened politician on race relations in a state that is 88.1% white, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. He talks about the threat posed by “critical race theory” and once had to apologize for calling Black community leaders “you people.” But it’s cheering to see Nebraska players — some of whom were literally crying over what had happened — leap to the defense of opponents. To become upset because people were yelling unfair and unkind things at their opponents; this is beyond sportsmanship; this is civility. This is decency. This is what we like to think as a core American value — respect for your fellow American regardless of race, class, gender or religion.

And so we offer a tip of the hat to the players on both sides whose skills clearly transcend their sport. They may be students but they are teaching the rest of the country how to act like grown-ups. Maryland Coach Adam Hughes had only good things to say about his players’ protest singling out Rainelle Jones. “I’m proud of Rainelle, I’m proud of her courage, I’m proud that she’s using her voice,” the Diamondback reported. Such support matters. On the following day, she took a knee prior to an evening match against Iowa. The team lost in four sets, but they left unbowed.

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